Country music has been around forever, it seems. But there have been many contradictions in its culture. On the one hand stands Nashville, Music City, with its starmaking machinery and rhinestoned, carefully coiffed performers.
Then there’s the Outlaw movement personified by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, men who consciously moved way from Nashville to ply their trade in alternative musical centres like Austin in Texas – and, in doing so, created an alternative template for others to follow.
Johnny Cash always had an Outlaw attitude: albums ‘At Folsom Prison’ and ‘At San Quentin’, both recorded behind bars, underlined his identification with the underdog. Cash forged working relationships with Nelson, Jennings and Kris Kristofferson and, in the Eighties, they joined forces to form a supergroup called the Highwaymen, named after a Jimmy Webb song. The quartet’s self-titled debut album went to Number 1 on the country charts and inspired a follow-up four years later.
Our three-disc set showcases material from the artists’ earlier years, kicking off with Willie Nelson’s version of ‘Crazy’. The song became Patsy Cline’s biggest hit in 1961, although her version is very different from the original. Nelson first became known in Nashville for writing hit songs for established country artists. ‘Hello Walls’ was a Number 1 for Faron Young and ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’, which starts CD2, was a country-chart success for Billy Walker.
Also included here is ‘No Place For Me’, which he recorded in 1956 using his own money, pressing 500 copies, This was the song that set Willie on the road as a writer; at the time he wrote it, he was working as a janitor and door-to-door Bible salesman. He moved to Nashville and got a job at Pamper Music, co-owned by Ray Price, in 1960. He signed to Liberty and released his first album, ‘And Then I Wrote...’, which contained tracks made famous via other artists. ‘Touch Me’, released as a single, reached Number 7 in the charts.
In the early Seventies Nelson changed his image and began appearing in jeans and sporting long hair wrapped in a red bandana. He’d moved back to Texas and tried his hand at pig farming, though he continued recording albums. His greatest successes as an Outlaw were still to come.
The passing of country giant Waylon Jennings in 2002 robbed country music of one of its greatest characters. Fortunately, he had left much for us to enjoy. Jennings had cheated death four decades earlier when, as a road musician in 1959, he gave up his seat on the plane that took Buddy Holly on his last fateful flight. Our selections feature the future Outlaw stamping his larger-than-life personality on the likes of Holly’s ‘It’s So Easy’, Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ and Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’.
Having coined the Outlaw label via the song ‘Ladies Love Outlaws’, which appeared on the 1972 album of the same name, Jennings linked with Willie Nelson for ‘Wanted: The Outlaws’, a collection of songs beloved by country fans who liked their singers to tote denim and leather rather than rhinestoned suits and wear their hair long.
Jennings lived life to the full, as his lined countenance showed. He also faced health issues with diabetes and had heart problems: when he had bypass surgery, Johnny Cash was in the next bed! In 2001, a year before his death, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but chose not to attend until later on – an outlaw to the end.
When Johnny Cash auditioned at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in the Fifties, he hoped to record the gospel music he grew up on. Phillips had an eye for talent but didn’t believe gospel would sell. Instead he persuaded Cash to perform in the style that was bringing the label success with artists such as Elvis and Carl Perkins – rock’n’roll.
Cash’s future was assured before he left for Columbia Records in 1958. Like many of his peers, he fought his demons daily in the form of drugs and alcohol, and is turbulent life would be immortalised on the silver screen in the 2005 motion picture Walk The Line. We feature the song from 1956 that titled the movie, plus many more hits and signature tracks.
Country music has always celebrated the common man and the ordinariness of everyday life, and Cash illustrated this with songs like ‘Five Feet High And Rising’. Inspired by an incident in his childhood, it came from his 1959 release ‘Songs Of Our Soil’ that celebrated the farmers of his native state of Arkansas.
He reprised the song in the Seventies on TV’s Sesame Street alongside puppet character Biff, advising children to learn to swim. Not perhaps the image of an Outlaw – but then again Cash, who worked right up until his death and posthumously topped the US album chart in 2006, never did things by the rulebook.
Outlaw country provided a viable, gritty and realistic alternative to glossy, production-line music. Enjoy this compilation of three of its very best practitioners.